Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

"How Could Anyone Respect Us?": A Century of Olympic Consciousness and National Anxiety in China

Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

"How Could Anyone Respect Us?": A Century of Olympic Consciousness and National Anxiety in China

Article excerpt

"China has never produced an earthshaking scientist or author or explorer... not even a talented athlete for the Olympics! When you think about it, how could anyone respect us?"

- Novelist Lao She, Ma and Son (1935)1

MUCH OF THE HISTORY OF China's modern sports and physical culture program (tiyu) has been phrased, experienced, understood, and remembered as a gesture of national defense. Enemies have come, gone, and come again-the Western and Japanese imperialists, the Communists, the Nationalists, the footbound and weak, the ignorant and unhygienic, the decadent and materialistic, Taiwan, Falun Gong, and (again) U.S. and Japanese imperialists. All have served as forces that threatened China's national body and had to be defeated with the rhythms, motions, disciplines, and ideologies of modern sport. Thus, over the last century, sport in China has served as a marker of political and social power, but it has also represented a profound national anxiety. This article investigates this realm and the tension between power and anxiety, and strength and fear, that has characterized so many of China's political movements over its many governmental transitions since the fall of the Qing Dynasty.


From the earliest moments of the Republic of China period (1912-1949), all types of physical culture exhibited an affinity with a defensive nationalism. The first high-profile example of anti-imperialism and nationalism through Chinese sport came in the 1915 Second Far Eastern Games, held in Shanghai just days after President Yuan Shikai had acceded to the Twenty-One Demands-Japans wartime attempt to vault to the forefront of imperialists exploitating China's markets and environment. Hoping to save some measure of prestige, Yuan personally paid to bring the standout Honolulu Chinese baseball team to represent the motherland in the games.2 This was a clear violation of the games' rules on territorial representation and use of professional players, so the team never played. But the players' presence in Shanghai (they had won eight consecutive games diere against U.S. teams in preparation) clearly provided an inspiring taste of pan-Chinese nationalism for athletes and fans alike.

The 100,000 fans who attended the weeklong games had much to cheer about, seeming to forget regional and political differences for the sake of the nation. As the YMCA national physical director wrote, "For the first time men from the north, south, east, and west stood together and cheered for China, and it mattered not whether an athlete was from north, south, east, or west. So long as he had the five-barred ribbon [the national flag] on, they cheered him."3 And when the "Chinese" soccer team (composed of only Hong Kong players) defeated the Filipino team, the Shanghai crowd surged forward to carry their victorious "countrymen" off the field atop their shoulders.4

Michael Herzfeld, in his book Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State, argues that embarrassment and failure can actually reveal a society's most intimate shared beliefs. The key, in his words, is to locate the "source of external embarrassment . . . that nevertheless provide[s] insiders with their assurance of common sociality."5 Sport, with its quasi-martial qualities, became a logical and powerful site within which nationalistic Chinese could address and hopefully avenge the "national humiliations" (guocht) that they had all suffered together. In 1922, Xi'an's new sports grounds featured "a map of national humiliations, with big lettering to explain each one . . . as China has been carved up so many times."6 Paul Cohen has shown how, in the early-Republican culture of "national humiliation" observations, remembering was seen as a modern act opposed to the "traditional" passive Chinese practice of forgetting these humiliations.7 Physical culture-and its self-conscious commitment to action and teamwork-no doubt seemed the perfect modern way to relive and resolve the problems of Chinas national weakness. …

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